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Why staff see social media as a quicker, easier and more effective alternative to the employment tribunal

One of the biggest concerns in the boardroom at the moment is a rise in the number of workers taking their grievance onto social media rather than to a lawyer or tribunal. In fact, according to a recent Sky News report, a rebellious workforce has become one of the top three reputational risks for businesses, alongside cyber threats and a slow economy.

What’s more, the risk is set to increase over the next few years and there are a number of very good reasons for this.

The age of uncertainty

Employees are on edge.  They sense the insecurities of their senior managers in relation to challenging trading conditions and global uncertainty and may be working harder and longer as a result of job cuts and efficiencies.

They are also nervous about change in general – and automation in particular. The world of work as they know it is in a state of flux and they are not at all sure what their role within it will look like in the next few years, if indeed they will have a role at all.

This anxiety means the relationship between employer and worker is often tense. Poor communication within many organisations simply intensifies the feeling of vulnerability and lack of trust, making it more acceptable somehow for staff to rebel when they feel an injustice has taken place. All too often, this rebellion is acted out on social media and, before you can say “Twitter”, it’s been seen by thousands of people. One such case was that of an Asda baker who lost his job after 13 years of service for refusing to sign a new employment contract with revised terms. He took to Twitter and his comment was shared more than 12,000 times. When asked why he chose this method of venting his grievance, he said that he felt it was the best way to get his point of view across and that he felt social media “democratised” storytelling of this nature.

An era of opportunity

Just as new technology is creating uncertainty, it is also generating new ways for employees to exert their rights and opinions. A recent poll found that 77% of companies expect to see more crowdfunded legal challenges as the digital era makes it easier for those with a personal cause to gain financial support from like-minded individuals around the world.

Tools such as crowdfunding, online petitions and social media are giving employees a voice and helping them to get their opinions out to a large number of people for relatively little effort or expense.

The issue for employers is that very few boards have a policy in place for dealing with such activism. Many don’t even have procedures in place for monitoring and managing their online reputation. Earlier this year, the BBC reported on the serious impact social media could have on company reputation and finances following news the previous month that Metro Bank had suffered an 11% drop in share value after reports flooded social media that the business was facing financial difficulties. The rumours proved to be unfounded but the damage had been done.

Social media, online forums and other such vehicles appear to be making it easier for staff and customers to complain and for whistleblowing allegations to be launched on an unsuspecting business. Rather than first hearing about these issues from their lawyers, bosses are now finding that it could be their receptionist, neighbour or even their kids who first break the news to them, having read about it online before they did.

Preparing for a new frontier in the boardroom

Boards are playing catch up here, which is understandable when you consider that many are only just getting to grips with the opportunities and threats posed by automation in the workplace. There are, however, some simple things that can be done and not all of them are costly.

One of the most important things that senior management can focus on is culture. A jittery workforce is a dissatisfied one and that can manifest in unpleasant ways. Take the recent British Airways strike as an example – the first ever strike by pilots in protest at what they saw as the disengagement of management. Culture is nurtured in the boardroom and it spreads through excellent communication, a willingness to listen and engagement throughout the business, at every level. It sounds simple but it most certainly isn’t. However, according to People Management magazine, companies with a strong culture are less likely to end up in the tribunal (or all over Twitter). The article states that managers should be armed with the tools they need to resolve conflict and build strong teams, thereby improving staff relations and making it less likely that complaints will be aired beyond the office.

Confidence is another key element in all of this. If a member of staff feels confident that their company is dealing with concerns in a proactive way, they will feel less likely to challenge authority. Furthermore, companies can do much to reassure their staff about change and automation. Read our previous article on how boards can intelligently embrace AI opportunities for more thoughts on this topic.

Finally, every boardroom in the country should be addressing the need to monitor and manage their reputation, particularly in relation to online comments. What policies do you have in place for social media use? Is there anything in your employment contracts about rules concerning the mention of the company name in public? How do you monitor your reputation in the press and on social media? What policies do you have for challenging potentially damaging comments? In certain circumstances there may be legal redress, particularly if your company’s reputation has been materially damaged by social media comments, although the ideal situation is to make sure things never get that far.